COLUMN: FIU a big game for Harper’s future

Brad Stephens

Ray Harper has a real chance to impress Saturday.

He’s said he’s not viewing his time as WKU’s interim head coach as an audition for the full-time job, saying he’d rather focus on what lies ahead for his team rather than personal ambitions.

But the way the Toppers play against Florida International at 6:30 p.m. CT Saturday in Miami could go a long way in seeing if the Bremen native is the man for the WKU job in the long run.

That may sound strange since WKU is facing a Panther team that’s a league bottom-feeder, standing 5-14 overall and just 2-5 in Sun Belt Conference play.

This game won’t turn heads on the Sun Belt scene, much less the national stage.

But it’ll provide a perfect chance for Topper fans to see what, if anything, is different about WKU now that wasn’t the case one month ago.

The teams met on New Year’s Eve, back when Ken McDonald was the team’s embattled head coach.

WKU kept things close for the first half then got down 39-29 early in the second after a 10-0 FIU run.

The Toppers never got closer than five points the rest of the way and faded down the stretch en route to a disappointing 81-63 loss.

WKU especially struggled in that game handling the Panthers’ 2-3 zone, passing the ball around the perimeter until players had to throw up bad shots late in the shot clock.

After the game freshman forward Nigel Snipes summed things up well, calling the Toppers’ offense “passive.”

That game tape could be used as a 40-minute instructional video on how to beat December’s WKU squad.

But those were the old days, the days when Diddle Arena was empty, when players couldn’t speak 140 characters at a time and when then-assistant coach Ray Harper was having to choke down Diet Pepsi instead of his standard go-to Diet Coke.

How will January’s Topper squad respond Saturday when FIU throws its 2-3 zone at them?

Harper said this week he wants a less passive approach from his team in the rematch.

“I’d like to see us attack the zone a little better,” he said. “Second half we got stagnant, took some bad shots.”

The Toppers can’t play “stagnant” again on Saturday.

Ever since Harper took the reins from McDonald, we’ve heard all about his up-tempo style of play and have seen some of it on display, especially late in WKU’s win over Arkansas-Little Rock on Jan. 21.

Players seem to have bought into Harper’s system, even if the talents of some of the roster don’t necessarily fit that style.

Now we’ll see how well Harper can do not only in planning for an opponent that shut down his team less than a month ago but also in changing the mindset of how his players attack the FIU zone.

Harper won’t officially call his time as interim coach an audition, but he’s certainly a strong candidate for the permanent job and wants to showcase that through the rest of this season.

The more improvement the team makes between now and the Sun Belt Tournament, the greater the chance he’ll be the guy for WKU.

Harper’s next big chance comes on Saturday.

Beating a team that beat you by 18 one month ago would be a feasible sign of improvement everyone wants to see.